My Book Notes: “The Tea Leaf” (1925) a short story by Edgar Jepson & Robert Eustace

This short story is included in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries: the Most Complete Collection of Impossible Crime Stories Ever Assembled / edited and with an introduction by Otto Penzler. A Vintage Crime/Black Lizar Original, 2014. Book Format: Kindle Edition. File Size: 10617 KB. Print Length: 962 page. eISBN: 978-0-8041-7279-0. ASIN: B00J1ISJJQ. “The Tea Leaf” was originally published in the October 1925 issue of The Strand Magazine.

25836643My Take: Two friends, Arthur Kelstern and Hugh Willoughton, were known for their bad character and their nasty temper and no one could believed that they would have become friends. One day, Hugh became engaged to Arthur’s daughter only to cancel it a year later. From then on they began to hate each other. They were both in the habit to have a Turkish bath twice a week, in the same place, at the same time, and on the same days. None of them changed their habits after their row and everyone sensed it was only a matter of time so that this relationship will end up in tragedy. Worst omens were fulfilled the day  in which they found themselves alone, sharing a bath in the hottest room. After a heated discussion Hugh left the room in a bad mood and, shortly after, another customer entered the room where he found Arthur stabbed to death. When the police arrived, Hugh was arrested. After a highly rigorous search, no trace whatsoever of the murder weapon was found. The autopsy revealed that the fatal wound was caused by a long circular weapon that would need at least a 4-inch handle to inflict such a deep and gruesome wound. Even in the absence of the murder weapon, Hugh is brought to trial.

Though now-a-days its denouement may seemed to us pretty obvious, it still makes a fascinating read.

About the Authors: Edgar Alfred Jepson (1863-1938) was an English author best known for his adventure and detective fiction. He also wrote supernatural and fantasy stories. Robert Eustace was the pen name of Eustace Robert Barton (1854-1943), an English doctor and author of mystery and crime fiction with a theme of scientific innovation.

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Robert Eustace (1871 – 1943)

Robert Eustace was the pen name of Eustace Robert Barton (1871–1943), an English doctor and author of mystery and crime fiction with a theme of scientific innovation. He also wrote as Eustace Robert Rawlings. Eustace often collaborated with other writers, producing a number of works with the author L. T. Meade (the pseudonym of an early feminist Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith) and others. He is credited as co-author with Dorothy L. Sayers of the novel The Documents in the Case, for which he supplied the main plot idea and supporting medical and scientific details.

Barton was the son of Alfred Bowyer Barton, FRCS, and Editha Helen Howell, of The Green, Hampton Court. He was educated at Barham House, Hastings. He first appeared in the Medical Register in 1897. He qualified MRCS. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (Temporary Captain) and was awarded the Serbian Order of St. Sava, 5th class. He was working in the County Mental Hospital, Gloucester, in 1932. He died in 1943.

Despite a career in crime fiction spanning more than forty years, Robert Eustace was the most mysterious member of the Detection Club. For decades after his death, students of the genre speculated about his identity, his death of birth, and even his sexual orientation. One wild theory suggested he was married to Sayers. In fact, he was born in 1871, his real name was Robert Eustace Barton, and he was a doctor working a a mental hospital in Northampton. (Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder. Harper Collins Publishers, 2015. pp. 123 – 124)

Sayers and Eustace never wrote together again. Eustace was left to resume his infrequent collaboration with Edgar Jepson, who owed his place among the founder members of the Detection Club more to his clubbability than to his detective fiction, of which only a locked room mystery, “The Tea Leaf”, a Golden Age Classic that Eustace co-wrote with Edgar Jepson, has stood the test of time.

“The Tea Leaf”, Eustace’s late (1925) collaboration with Edgar Jepson, finds him pursuing many of the same themes, some 20 years after his collaboration with Meade ended. There is the same interest in freezing, the same impossible crimes explained through chemistry, the same interest in the geometry of rooms and buildings, the same obsessive characters, and the same brilliant female scientists: here one serves as the detective. The plot of this story has been re-used and summarized so many times it has passed into the folklore of the detective story, so this tale has lost some of the punch it must have originally had. But it is still a very well done story.

Meade and Eustace wrote six stories about sleuth John Bell, collected in 1898 in A Master of Mysteries, and soon after a seventh and very fine tale “The Secret of Emu Plain” about the same detective. Bell is a well-to-do man who uses science to explain and expose phony supernatural events. A Master of Mysteries has been called the first collection of impossible crime tales. Like many alleged “firsts” in mystery history, this claim is hard to prove or disprove. It is certainly the earliest impossible crime collection known to me, or mentioned in standard reference works. This landmark status can lead to inflated expectations. The stories in A Master of Mysteries are pretty mild, and often mediocre. The explanation of all the impossibilities centers on technological devices or scientific situations. The stories thus are part of both the impossible crime and Scientific Detection traditions. (Mike Grost L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace)

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(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Ernest Benn Limited (UK), 1930)

The Documents in the Case is a 1930 novel by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. It is the only one of Sayers’s twelve major crime novels not to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, her most famous detective character.

Book Description: The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted . . .
Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?
The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London. (Source: Hodder & Stoughton)

The Documents in the Case has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’, Countdown John’s Christie Journal